Starting with this entry, I'll be playing around with writing styles while as I look for something comfortable and that I think is the best way to document this trip
When I woke up the only thing left in the furnace were embers, but it was enough to burn my fingers when I tried to grab some dry socks. Didn't need any coffee after that surprise and my gut was still content from an enormous bowl of salmon ceviche the night before, so I packed my bags and stepped out of the cabin. Futaleufú, nestled in the mountains like an egg in a nest, sent a playful breeze my way with the smell of wood-fired stoves and pine trees. A bashful dog that looked like a shaggy version of my own Kaiser watched us load the bikes, so I had no choice but to give him a few good pets before we left.
A tranquil morning soon gave way to tough riding. One hundred and forty eight kilometers of washboard, pot holes, loose gravel, and construction, to be exact. Ironically, what made the riding even more difficult was the scenery. Around every turn was another picturesque landscape that drew the eyes dangerously far from the obstacles in the road. If you want to see the best that Patagonia has to offer, you have to earn it.
Dad earned it about twenty miles in. Handlebar-rattling washboard makes your hands tired in just a few minutes and weakens your grip. This is especially troublesome when you encounter a loose surface with little friction--such as thick gravel--where the front wheel tends to weave and wobble its way through. Unfortunately my old man found himself on a stretch of this exact type of road when a truck came flying by in the opposite direction. He tried to make way but suddenly found his tires in a few inches of gravel. He managed to slow down before he ran out of road on the right. The front wheel sank into a pile of gravel on the road's edge and jerked to the left, tipping the bike over to the right.
Both my dad and the bike got up alright, but he took a tough spill and his ankle wasn't so quick to get over it. We would know the true extent of the damages later, but at the time the only thing we could do was press on.
Progress was slow, and the list of victims grew throughout the day: one lost GoPro camera mount, one lost glove, a broken kickstand, and several bolts that literally rattled out of their threads. I had read a lot about the scenic Carretera Austral, but not much about how tough this part of the road is, so I will go on record now and say it: this is a VERY tough stretch of road to ride on. Even for a daily dual-sport rider and long-time dirtbike rider like myself, and for my father, who has close to forty years of offroad riding experience, this stretch of road was nothing short of grueling. I henceforth dub it "The Anklebreaker".
We were cursing the road, we passed several bicyclists who couldn't have been happier with the surface. While repairing the busted kickstand, a Brit named Tom stopped to ask if we needed a hand, and then hung around for a bit while I got the bike going again. He put us to shame when he told us he was riding Patagonia by bicycle, and then compounded it with tales from his ride from Sri Lanka to the UK years earlier on the same exact bicycle. Another lesson learned: No matter what you do, you'll always meet a bigger badass.
We ended the day in Puyuhuapi, a village which straddles the northern tip of a huge fjord by the same name. The scenic descent into town made for an excellent end to the day, so we found a cabin for the night. While my old man rested his ankle, I set about mending the bike's ankle. Although I managed to avoid any falls, the bike, whom I'll henceforth refer to as The Red Baroness a.k.a Big Red, still emerged with some battle scars. A precisely-placed rock, flung up from the front tire, had completely broken the kickstand spring. Without the spring, the kickstand now dangled loose when Big Red was upright. Thanks to a spare bungee cord, I could secure the kickstand while I rode, but I had to undo it every time I wanted to get off the bike. The busted spring also left Big Red prone to accidentally shutting off when I rode on bumpy surfaces thanks to the "safety mechanism" sensor that kills the motor if the kickstand isn't all the way up. It was inconvenient, but part of me wondered if the bike could take much more riding like this. The past two days had really taken a toll on her, and there was still a lot of road between us and Punta Arenas.
I wandered around the tranquil village, snapped a view pics, and chatted up an Argentine couple in a cafe down the street. In the morning we loaded the bikes in silence, listening to the river behind the cabin. The cabin's owner gave us permission to browse among the cherry trees and raspberry vines in his yard, which was a refreshing addition to the usual breakfast of granola and jerky.
II. No hay cajero
The Argentines I met the day before were familiar with the Carretera Austral and had assured me that the rest of the road south is much easier than the Anklebreaker. Though it may sound like blasphemy for a dual-sport rider to say, I was quite relieved when the rubber met smooth pavement again.
The road south out of Puyuhuapi clings to the eastern slope of the fjord, and no shoulder exists on the left or right, only vertical mountain faces and sheer drops down to the water. Dirt roads reappear when you enter Parque Nacional Queulat, but they are hard-packed and immensely more enjoyable than the surface of the Anklebreaker. Riding under the watch of mist-capped mountains, the road was hardly wide enough for two vehicles, as the forest on both sides makes every effort to overtake the road with branches, vines, and Nalca leaves as wide as a windshield. As far as I could tell, I was in Jurassic Park.
The park roads feature several switchbacks that carry you up and over the mountains. At the top we chatted with some curious Chileans who were enthralled that a couple of Americans would travel so far to see their country, including a group of old college buddies on a road trip (although they're all in their sixties now) and a family from Santiago whose daughter gave me some chocolate for the road. We nibbled on it while watching waterfalls branch out like lightning as they flowed from the top of a nearby mountain.
Continuing south, the Carretera presents the motorcyclist with the best problem imaginable. The road's surface is impeccable for hundreds of kilometers. It flows along the terrain, and to ride on it is to know every curve and dip along the way. On a road like this, the throttle almost twists itself. The dilemma arises when the motorcyclist manages to take his eyes off of the delicious curves of the road, because what he sees makes him want stop entirely so he may take it all in. When he isn't crossing mountains, he is in their shadow meandering alongside a turquoise river, in a forest watching unknown species of birds flutter among the trees, or watching sheep graze in the pastures, all slowly moving across the plain like the fluffy white clouds overhead.
In the morning we were in Parque Nacional Queulat, and by the evening we passed through five more national reserves: Reserva Nacional Lago Las Torres. Reserva Nacional Mañihuales. Reserva Nacional Coyhaique. Reserva Nacional Trapananda. Reserva Cerro Castillo. The Anklebreaker had been hell, but I would gladly do it again for the privilege of riding this road.
We emerged on the other side of Reserva Cerro Castillo in late afternoon just before sunset. The top of Cuesta del Diablo overlooks a valley to the west, and the sun was perfectly placed that all of the rivers, lakes, and ponds below shimmered like silver. We rolled along and settled in to Puerto Ibañez for the night.
We didn't realize it at the time, but when we emerged on the other side Cuesta del Diablo we had crossed the continental divide again had entered the northern edge of the dry and very windy Patagonian steppe. As if on cue, as soon as we stepped off the bikes in Puerto Ibañez the wind began to blow. It was bothersome, but we assumed we would soon be indoors for the night, so looked around this small lake town for an ATM. After a lap around town without luck, I ducked in to a shop to ask for directions. I bought a cookie, asked about nearby cabins, and then asked for an ATM.
"No hay cajero."
Suddenly I felt really dumb for buying that cookie. I stepped back outside and immediately shuddered. In the few minutes I was in the shop the wind had gone from bothersome to cold and harsh. I talked with a different shop owner who had a small room to rent for the night, so Dad and I literally emptied our pockets and counted our coins.
We had just enough for the room, two rolls, and a small package of ham, and some "donations" from the pear tree growing in the shop owner's garden. With a bit of instant coffee that I was carrying we were able to go to bed with warm stomachs, glad to be out of the wind whipping the exterior of the house.
III. Invisible Bully
By morning the wind had quieted a bit. We rode a few blocks to the end of town, toward Lago Buenos Aires / General Carrera (depending on whose map you consult) whose color almost appeared to just be a reflection of the clear blue sky overhead. The slightest hint of green results in a distinct turquoise color that the glacier-fed lakes of Patagonia are known for. I kept that big turquoise blob over my right shoulder as we headed east through the desert toward Argentina. After a couple of hours without a road marker, other vehicle, or any trace of humanity save the gravel road itself, we ended up at the Argentine customs outpost.
A few hours more and we were out in the Patagonian steppe, where the road grew hostile. The eastbound road turned south, and the wind at our backs now hit us broadside, pummeling us incessantly like nothing I had ever experienced before. If you didn't fight it, it would blow you and your bike off the road in a few seconds. The wind also made quick work of pushing over parked motorcycles, even when fully-loaded with luggage and weighing in over five hundred pounds.
Out on the steppe, the wind is a menace that prevents anything larger than a shrub from growing, leaving no irregularities in the landscape save for the occasional guanaco, ñandú, or human. Without a single leaf or blade of grass to wave in the wind, the rigid shrubs give no visual indication of the torrential force that the land endures day after day. Like trying to run underwater, every movement, no matter how simple, was labored and distorted. I tucked my helmet down, rested my chin on the tank to minimize my profile, leaned into the wind, and pinned the throttle. All of my muscles were tense from resisting the wind's attempts to tip the bike, nudge the front wheel, or rip my helmet right off my head. For hours on end I fought it, yelling and cursing inside my helmet in defiance of the invisible bully like Lieutenant Dan in the hurricane. It was an arm-wrestling match that I couldn't win; the best I could do was try not to lose for as long as possible.
We ran into good folks along the way that softened the harshness of the ride. Out on the open road we stopped to talk to some Brazilians heading in the opposite direction, and shared tips with each other for the road ahead. While filling our tanks and resting our necks in Bajo Caracoles, a German in a pickup truck told us about the road ahead. He had wrecked his own R1100R a few weeks back when a gust of wind pushed his front tire in to a bad patch of gravel at close to sixty miles per hour. Out here, there was no way for him to get the bike repaired or even to get it towed back north, so he had to take a bus back to Chile, rent a truck, and was now on his way to get the bike. He recommended that we stop in Gobernador Gregores for the night rather than trying to make Tres Lagos by nightfall.
Due to the extreme latitude of Patagonia, the sun doesn't set until very late in the summer, and each day we made our way further south, the later it set. When we reached the turnoff for Gobernador Gregores around five in the afternoon, we figured we had at least another three or four hours of daylight, so we took the shortcut to Tres Lagos. The wind was fiercer than ever, and I could feel myself approaching physical and mental limits. My tenacity had dwindled from its peak earlier in the day, and I considered how tiny my efforts were against a force that is millions of years old and would certainly not be yielding to me any time soon. Then a yellow light appeared on Big Red's dash.
"Goddamn Germans," I thought to myself. "Always gotta follow the rules and make everyone else feel dumb." I stopped and looked at my dad. The same light had appeared on his dash. The wind had destroyed our average gas mileage, and we were out of gas about eighty kilometers from Tres Lagos. The sun was within an hour of setting and the wind was getting colder, stinging our faces more and more by the minute.
Jay Kannaiyan, another adventure rider who I consider to be the Sean Connery to my Timothy Dalton, described his own mantra when he encounters difficulty on the road. When things look bleak or don't go according to plan, he simply asks himself this:
"Who does the universe want me to meet now?"
It's simple, wise, and optimistic (assuming you aren't incredibly misanthropic). Before I set out on this trip, I made sure to commit it to memory for exactly this type of situation. A few cars passed but no one was carrying extra gas that we could buy, but we kept asking. The sun crept closer toward the mountains in the west and we took shelter from the wind behind a nearby construction sign while we waited for the next car to come by. Eventually I flagged down a small pickup truck that, as it turns out, was full of young men on their way to Gobernador Gregores. They didn't have gas, but they had room to give one of us a ride to town. Since my old man doesn't speak Spanish, he figured it wouldn't do us any good if he was the one to go ahead and try to buy extra gas in Gobernador Gregores.
The last thing I wanted to do was leave my dad in the middle of nowhere in Patagonia, but daylight was running out and the wind was picking up. I took my bags off the bike and the guys heaved Big Red in to the truck. I was glad to have caught a break, but as we pulled away I looked back at my dad, alone in an inhospitable land in a country where he doesn't speak the language. Suddenly my cool-headedness was robbed of me, and my mind was suddenly flooded with all of the pessimistic thoughts I had avoided until that point.
Eventually I managed to corral these thoughts and calm myself, no doubt thanks to good company. The guys in the truck were seasonal construction workers based out of Gobernador Gregores. Much of Patagonia's gravel roads are being paved, so workers from all over the country head to the south during the summer. In typical Argentine fashion, they were thrilled that a foreigner would come to their country in search of adventure and they offered me a sandwich while I answered their questions.
Once we reached Gobernador Gregores, the driver refused to let me pay him back. They helped me unload the bike and gave me a plastic jug to carry extra fuel, and I set back out of town into the sunset to find dad. Fortunately this stretch of highway out of Gobernador Gregores has just been paved. With a full tank, no luggage, and new pavement under my tires I tore down the dark desert road.
By this time the sun was out of sight, and the orange sky cooled down to azure leaving only silhouettes of barren hills in all directions. I chased the fading light for what seemed like forever. Enclosed in my helmet and gear in that barren landscape, I may as well have been on another planet. Only one thing brought me back; the thought of my dad, somewhere out there waiting in the dark. I watched the speedometer climb to 140...150...165 kph...I found the end of the throttle and kept it there. The exciting hum of the engine gave way to a less pleasant yell, and I could feel Big Red shaking as we topped out. My own heart thumped in my ears out of fear of what might have happened to my dad when I left, as well as the fact that I was overriding Big Red's highbeams by several seconds, but I had to keep going. I didn't know how long it would take to find my dad, I just knew I had to get there.